Why do some churches grow and others die?

Q. I have been pondering a question. I will put into a story which is in fact a real situation. There were 2 churches. Both were made up of people who loved our Lord Jesus. They built buildings about the same time right across the street from each other, within the last 20 years. Over time one congregation grew and added more services. I will call that  church A.  

The other congregation, I will call B, lost members as people went to be with the Lord.  Now church B realized that they needed to bring new people into their flock and continued to love the Lord and love people.  They prayed and prayed and decided to hire a new pastor who could help them.  The new pastor loved Jesus and served Him. He tried many many ways to increase the church including community outreach and summer camps for kids and so on, but nothing worked.  

After years of faithfulness and trying church B got down to about 5 families whereas church A continued to grow and their parking was filled to capacity every Sunday. Church B could no longer carry on so they let the pastor go and closed the doors.

Now here is the question I have been troubled by: Why did this happen? I am sure there are many reasons that we could cite  from a human perspective, and I know there are hundreds of books written and seminars given on how to build churches and attract people in this current age. That said, while all of these human efforts and plans that “increase numbers” using business models seem to work, it troubles me that the love and desire for Jesus isn’t enough.

When I read Scripture it tells me that if we ask, it will be given to us. I don’t see anywhere that God says that if you ask and use this business model, better worship band, or higher quantity treats and coffee, then I will give you what you ask by increasing your numbers.

So, bottom line, both congregations had pastors and church members who loved the Lord, prayed, and wanted to share Jesus with others.  Why wasn’t that enough? Again I know there many earthly reasons that we could rationalize, but I am more interested in why God let this happen when apparently all parties put their trust in Him.

I really appreciate your question, because two of the churches I served as a pastor  closed their doors—one while I was there, and the other some years after my pastorate. So as you can imagine, I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. Here are some of my reflections.

An individual congregation is two things at once. It is, on the one hand, a local expression of the universal body of Christ, and as such it has all the resources of faith, prayer, and supernatural power at its disposal. But it is also, on the other hand, an earthly institution, and as such it is subject to all the vicissitudes of life here on earth.

Paul makes an interesting statement in his second letter to the Corinthians: “When I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, I found that the Lord had opened a door for me. But I still had no peace, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.” Presumably if Paul had stayed on in Troas and ministered, God would have accomplished remarkable things as he preached the gospel with that opening. But relationships still took priority. Paul needed to find Titus not just because he was a valuable ministry partner, but also to learn how things were going in their efforts to pursue reconciliation with the community of believers in Corinth.

We live in two worlds at once. Jesus himself warned us not to neglect the responsibilities of our relationships in this present age under the guise of promoting spiritual activity. If you have money that is needed to support your elderly parents, he admonished, don’t give it to the temple.

A woman joined one of the churches I served as pastor after moving to town to help her parents. She contributed a great deal to our ministry. But that also meant that her contributions were lost to the church she had attended in her previous city. We ourselves lost a member to another church in town when he started dating a woman who attended there. Eventually they got married and to this day they have an effective ministry partnership, much greater than either could have alone. But that came at the price of our church losing a valuable member. This kind of thing is inevitable as the church operates in our world of change and uncertainty. At one point we even had a wave of relocations as several young families had to move to find other work. This practically wiped out our Sunday school, through no fault of our own.

Beyond inevitable and unavoidable occurrences such as these, there are things that a church needs to do “right” if it wants to flourish. You can’t go out and make a lot of mistakes and then wonder why God hasn’t answered your prayers. For example, a church needs to “speak the language” of the people it wants to reach. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, “There are  many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning. But if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” Don’t start an English-language service in a place where nobody speaks English if you expect anybody to come.

But this applies not just literally, but also figuratively in the sense of culture. You also have to make sure that the style, the music, the decor, and yes even the refreshments are welcoming and inviting to the people you want to reach. These aren’t a magic formula for church growth; I’ll take prayer over brand-name coffee any day. But it is nevertheless a biblical principle that we need to “speak a language” that will make the people we want to reach feel at home if we want them to make our church their home.

All of this said—and I think most people already recognize these things—the fact remains that local churches, as earthly institutions, are “mortal.” They have a life cycle. They are born, grow, and die. The average lifespan of a church is 125 years. Churches are started by people in their 20s and 30s who, by the time they reach their 40s and 50s, have gotten things just the way they want them. They don’t appreciate other people in their 20s and 30s coming in and telling them they should be doing things differently. So those younger people go elsewhere (they may start churches of their own), and the founders continue along until the church is ultimately closed down by their children in their elderly years. There are exceptions; some churches have had vibrant and faithful ministries for centuries. But if you study those churches, you discover that over and over again, somebody has effectively planted a new church right in the midst of the old one.

One rule for ministry within churches is, “New programs for new people.” Don’t try to plug a newcomer into a Bible study whose members have been together for fifteen years. Rather, start a new Bible study for them and several other newcomers. Analogously, people who look at the big picture are telling us we need “new churches for new people.” It has been estimated that the United States needs 350,000 new churches to reach all the people who would be interested but who wouldn’t feel that they fit in existing churches.

And even with that said, we need to acknowledge that 80% of new church plants don’t survive more than five years. (The average lifespan of a church is actually 125 years only if it makes it through the first five!) Even if the pastors and people who start these churches are being sincerely obedient to the leading of the Lord, those are the facts on the ground. So if you’ve been in that 80% (as I have), don’t feel that you’ve failed. You’ve been faithful. Because even if the local church doesn’t survive, its ministry endures.

A friend of mine was part of a new church plant. He just loved it. The experience of being part of it was very meaningful to him and he talks about it to this day. Nevertheless, when the people of this church ultimately faced the fact that they just couldn’t sustain operations, he was one of the members who voted to close it down. (Everyone else voted the same way, except the pastor. I totally understand that.) But my friend still talks about the quality of life and relationships in this church as a model he aspires to continue. He also talks about the sermons and all he learned from them. The ministry endures.

Relationships endure as well. The church I served whose Sunday school got wiped out eventually closed its doors some years after I was there. But many of the women who were members, even though they now attend a number of different churches all over town, still get together at regular intervals for fellowship. They formed a community that survives even though the church has ceased operations.

So this is the paradox of the local church. It is an earthly institution that is animated by the spiritual life of its identity as an expression of the universal body of Christ. These two dynamics are in constant interplay. Paul wrote to the Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.” I think we see that in the local church when things are at their best: The Spirit of Christ is giving life to the mortal institution.

Prayer is a necessary condition for this to happen, but it is not a sufficient condition. Rather, as the Bible also teaches us, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” In the end, on this earth, even when people of sincere faith and good will pray and obey and take due care to “speak the language,” a church may die rather than grow simply because time and chance happen to it. But as I have said, the ministry will endure, the fellowship will endure, and all who gave their efforts will hear as they stand before their Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: